Joanna Blythman

savoy pesto

A spat blew up last week which encompassed the best and the worst of this country’s attitude to food. It particularly caught my eye because it involved kale, a vegetable that is on my mind at the moment.

Jack Monroe, the feisty and fabulous food writer and anti-poverty campaigner, snagged herself some bargain kale from the supermarket and had the frankly brilliant idea of whizzing it up into some pesto.

Jack, who knows a thing or two about living below the breadline, always costs her recipes meticulously. This one worked out at a princely 15p per portion.

She then published a slightly revised version of the recipe in her Guardian column: with spaghetti and a few embellishments, the whole meal still worked out at only 42p a head.

For reasons I still cannot fathom, this sparked a frothing fit of abuse from Daily Mail journalist Richard Littlejohn. You can read it in a screenshot on Jack’s blog here, and also her wonderful response.

I really do not understand why some people get so very, very angry at the suggestion that people on a low income might care about the food they eat. (I realise this is not all that contributed to Littlejohn’s apoplexy but it is a good part of it.)

As I witnessed in Bulgaria, this attitude seems to be a peculiarly British thing and is not, on the whole, the case in mainland Europe and beyond. Joanna Blythman describes it well in her excellent book Bad Food Britain:

In nearly every country in the world where the population is not on the brink of starvation, the selection and preparation of food is seen as a fundamental life-enhancing activity, a zone of existence where it is within every individual’s grasp to make each day that bit more pleasurable. Good food is seen as a democratic entitlement, so a labourer expects to sit down to much the same food as the business executive. The ingredients may vary in quality, but the menu structure and choice of dishes is essentially the same.

I’d been planning to go and buy some kale so that I could try Jack’s recipe, but then I saw in another interview that she had described it as ‘basically cabbage’ and I realised I could substitute some of the enormous Savoy cabbage that has been kicking around our fridge for a few days.

This is my version of Jack’s recipe. I added some flat leaf parsley because it was growing in the garden. It enhanced the taste and really rescued the appearance –  the Savoy looked rather anaemic once pestoed and definitely loses out to kale in the beauty stakes.

I used olive oil instead of sunflower because I prefer the taste but I realise that does make it quite a bit more expensive.

The chilli was a frozen one that I didn’t even bother to defrost – I only found out recently that they freeze well, which is useful as supermarkets often have quite large packs marked down on the nearly-past-the-sell-by-date shelves.

We had it on spaghetti and it was delicious. I would probably halve the amount of chilli if I was feeding this to children.

pesto

Savoy pesto

200g Savoy cabbage, sliced and washed
1 fat bunch of flat leaf parsley
1 chilli, sliced
100g strong Cheddar (any kind of flavoursome hard cheese would do), grated
150ml olive oil
juice of one lemon
100ml water

Pile everything into a food processor and whizz until almost smooth. Makes loads. Stir a generous tablespoon per person into hot pasta and eat, reflecting on the democratic right to pleasurable, life-enhancing food. Then go and try some more of Jack’s excellent recipes.

If you enjoy this blog, please do consider backing my Kickstarter campaign. We’re hoping to raise enough money to publish a book about Incredible Edible, a movement which is inspiring people all over the world to work with their communities to build a stronger, kinder, healthier future.

the Magnificat and the shopping centre

To prepare for Advent this year I read the Magnificat, that famous song of Mary that is recorded in Luke’s gospel. Soon after that I went to Broomhill, an area of Sheffield almost halfway between where we live and the city centre. I hadn’t been for a few weeks and I was shocked by the changes I found.

Together, the two experiences combined to convince me (and I know I’ve been slow) that it’s impossible to take Advent seriously and continue to shop like a typical Western consumer.

This is what I found in Broomhill.

on a roll

This used to be an independent sandwich shop.

Blackwells

This was a bookshop.

Williamsons

This is an excellent hardware store which has been trading in Sheffield for fifty years. It’s moving to the bookshop premises because they are smaller. Not because it is short of things to sell but because the landlord refused to renew their lease, preferring to hand it to Sainsbury’s instead. (I do not know why Broomhill needs a Sainsbury’s only a few doors away from Eurospar in one direction and Tesco in the other but that is what it will get.)

Cream

This was a coffee shop.  It had, a seasonal menu that changed regularly and it stocked local food, such as the excellent Our Cow Molly ice cream.

Our Cow Molly is part of a family-run dairy farm that was set up in 1947 and now numbers eighty cows, which graze on top of one of Sheffield’s famous seven hills. When the current owner’s grandfather started the business sixty years ago, a bottle of milk had the same value as a loaf of bread or a bottle of beer. Now the big traders have forced the price of milk so low that hundreds of dairy farmers are going out of business. ‘We didn’t want to be next so Our Cow Molly dairy ice cream was born!’ explains their website.

The owner of Cream has sold the lease to Costa Coffee, a global chain that already has several branches in Sheffield, each serving an identical menu. Just to be sure, I emailed Costa and asked them whether individual branches were allowed to stock locally sourced food. They replied: ‘The store will have to stock the same products as the rest of our stores in line with our company policy.’

This globalised, one-size-fits-all way of doing business is wrecking our world. It’s destroying individuality, creativity and local resilience. It places power in the hands of a few and forces the rest of us to do things their way. The global food industry in particular is one that screams injustice, whether that’s in the treatment of small scale producers, the conditions in which animals are kept to ensure low prices or the terrible havoc wreaked on the land by large scale agricultural practices.*

In the Magnificat, a pregnant teenager sings of themes that recur throughout the Bible: of justice and equality and of God overthrowing the power structures of the world. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,’ cries Mary. ‘He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’ **

When I read the Magnificat this year, I felt more than ever the dissonance between joining in Mary’s celebration and continuing to spend money without thinking about where it is going. I buy more stuff in December than at any other time. I don’t want my money to contribute to wrecking the environment and putting more power in the hands of people who have too much already.

So as a family we have drawn up some criteria for our shopping and present-giving this month. As far as possible, we will try to buy and give things that meet at least one of the following criteria, things that are:

:: locally produced, or
:: recycled, or
:: sold by an independent retailer, or
:: organic, or
:: fairly traded or
:: hand made originals

We won’t be shopping at big retailers that shirk their responsibility to pay corporation tax. In general I won’t be shopping at supermarkets but I’m making an exception for our local Co-op. That’s partly because the Co-op sells more fairly traded goods than any other supermarket, and also because there’s a small branch only five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m absolutely convinced that if it went out of business we’d get Tesco or Sainsbury’s moving in and tightening still further the grip they have on our buying choices.

I know this isn’t perfect. I know to my shame that we’ll probably still consume more in one month that some families in other countries do in a year. I know loads of people of all faiths and none have been doing this kind of thing for ages and we have been slow to get going. But it’s a start. It’s only by beginning that we’ll find out where to go next.

Joanna Blythman’s books are especially helpful for understanding more about the food industry.
** Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone really helped me understand the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song.

What to Eat

What to Eat is a risky title for a book. People can get very defensive about diet – hardly surprising, given the number of confusing and judgemental messages out there. Writers who tackle food-related issues run the risk of sounding either unbearably preachy or so full of doom that the reader is driven screaming towards the nearest doughnut.

Only a first-rate writer with a deep understanding of the issues could write successfully about how to eat in ways that are ethical, inexpensive and good for you. Fortunately, Joanna Blythman is just such a writer. She easily achieves the goal she sets out in her introduction of helping people ‘recognise and locate food that’s good in the broadest sense of that word – food that’s healthy, affordable, doesn’t trash the environment, exploit producers or cause unnecessary animal suffering, and, last but not least, tastes great’.

The book is divided into sections, each devoted to a particular food group, such as vegetable, meat and dairy products. Within each section she lists a range of foods and gives tips on how to prepare them, along with information about price, seasonality and health benefits. Although I’ve been interested in food for years, I learnt a lot from this. Did you know for example that grapes can contain residues of up to eleven different pesticides? An argument for buying the organic variety if ever I heard one.

Blythman also gives information about how our food is produced, along with an indication of the impact of that production on the environment, and whether people or animals are exploited in the process. Some of this is genuinely horrifying. In Costa Rica, for example, pineapple plants are drenched in so much pesticide that the workers who put them in the ground often end up with deformed fingernails. I was also shocked to learn that half the UK’s pear orchards have disappeared in the last 30 years, and that several of our native breeds of pig are classified as endangered species.

My only criticism of the book is the puzzling lack of an index. It’s the kind of resource you want to return to again and again, and it would be far easier to use if you could look up individual foods by name. Otherwise, though, this was well worth the money and I came away from it with a new enthusiasm for eating well and at the same time using my power as a consumer responsibly.